Apps and the Social Side of Reading

Poets & Writers magazine had a nice little article in their Jan/Feb 2012 issue about new technologies’ effects on reading, i.e., it’s socialization:

It’s tempting to characterize this shift as the displacement of a tradition of solitary communion with an author by a noisy new collective engagement. But reading has always been social; technology only inflects it in curious ways. And just as changing media go hand in hand with evolving practices, some of these new modes of reading can feel decidedly familiar.

You can read the rest of the article online here.

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Young Writers Conference This Weekend

On Saturday, my alma mater Mercy High School is holding its annual Young Writers Conference.  It’s a day of workshops for girls in grades six through eight on topics like fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and playwriting (which is the workshop I’m leading).

Like most kids, I really wanted to get away from high school while I was there.  But I have a greater appreciation for Mercy the more years there are between me and my graduation almost 13 years ago.  I would say Mercy is the first place where I came to think of myself as a writer.  I participated in the school’s literary magazine as a senior.  More importantly, I started keeping a regular journal when I was in high school, a practice I continue today.  So as I try to write more frequently, Saturday will be a perfect moment for the proverbial walk down memory lane in the place where I really started my writer’s life, such as it is.  Here’s hoping I come home with a dozen short story ideas and the germ of a Great American Novel, too.

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Thinking of Snow, and Love Stories

The view from our apartment during the blizzard of 2010

In anticipation of the Valentine’s holiday this past week, I started rifling through my book-memory to see if I could list a few good love stories.  Most of the ones I came up with were of the doomed variety: Janie and Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Grady and Alejandra in All the Pretty Horses, W.P. and Ada in Cold Mountain.  Nonetheless, I set aside my current nonfiction reading in honor of St. Valentine for a detour into fiction and one of my favorite love stories.

Hema and Kaushik are the star-crossed pair whose tale occupies about half of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2008 short story collection Unaccustomed Earth.  Like many of Lahiri’s other short stories and her novel The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth examines the Bengali diaspora, mainly in the United States but sometimes in other countries as well.  Lahiri’s American settings are often in New England, and for those of us who spent time in the Boston/Cambridge area, her references to places like Inman Square and MIT add to the appeal of her work (how much of a bummer was it that the film version of The Namesake transferred the setting from Boston to New York?).  The same holds true for the Hema/Kaushik trilogy.

We first meet Hema and Kaushik as pre-teens, children of Indian immigrants who came to the United States for school and work.  Hema’s parents host Kaushik’s family for several weeks when they relocate to Massachusetts — so that, as it turns out, Kaushik’s mother can spend the last years of her life battling breast cancer in privacy and peace.  A certain rootlessness seems to govern both Hema and Kaushik’s adult lives.  Hema becomes a classics professor at Wellesley and finds herself in her mid-thirties on the brink of a loveless arranged marriage.  Kaushik is a globe-trotting photojournalist, restless, emotionally distant from his subjects, lacking any real home of his own.  They reconnect through a mutual friend one summer in Italy, finding in each other an unexpected link to the past, to family, and to home.  As their time together in Italy ticks by, with Hema to travel to India and her fiance, Kaushik to a new job in Hong Kong, the lovers have to decided whether or not to stay together — and, if so, what “staying together” will look like  given the far-flung and attachment-less nature of their lifestyles.  I won’t give away the ending, but Lahiri delivers it with such a skillful balance of revelation and implication that you will have to re-read the last paragraph of the story at least three times to get the whole thing straight.

I love the moodiness of Lahiri’s stories.  She’s not the loudest voice in the room — no over-the-top plot twists or vulgarities — but she writes about love, home, and family in ways that really shake you.  Her books would be great company on a snowy day in Boston (or anywhere), when there’s not much to do but stay in with a good book and a bittersweet love story.  As a matter of fact, they are calling for a little bit of snow in Baltimore tomorrow . . .

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25 Adventure Books You Should Read

From Outside magazine, that is.

Bored in Academia a few years ago, I developed a…fondness for literary adventure books.  If you’re stuck inside a lot this winter and want to at least let your brain escape, check out this list of books to get your mind-thrill on.  Of course, Junger, Bryson and Chatwin make appearances, but there are several books I’d never heard of.

The 25 (Essential) Books for the Well-Read Explorer

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What we do to books

Before I start getting personal (too personal that is), I’ve been thinking lately about how age and fatherhood and finally being out of school forever have changed my attitude toward my things. What’s relevant to this blog is that my most valuable (in more ways than one) “thing” is my library. I’ve gone from being nutty about the condition of my books to just wanting the pages together. Sometimes.  And I wonder how other people relate to their books.

In The New York Times, Geogg Dyer writes:

There has always been a lot of discussion about the effect that reading books has on us. Far less attention has been paid to the effect that we (the readers) have on them (the books). I don’t mean on the reputations or royalties of the authors who wrote the books but on the actual physical objects themselves.

He goes on to say a little about the condition in which he likes to buy books:

…the book should be in near-mint condition when I start reading it, but I am not obsessive about keeping it that way. On the contrary, I like the way it gradually and subtly shows signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favorite jeans.

Personally, I’m finding myself less concerned with cosmetics and more concerned with keeping a book intact these days.  Also, I’m willing to take home a score from a used bookstore that is in less-great condition than I’d prefer, when the deal is good enough.  For instance, I bought a $4 copy of Jack London’s stories on a very cold day at Normal’s last week, even though the book looks like it has seen some time in a backpack or some kind.  I don’t plan on being kind to this book, myself.  I just noticed a surprising lack of Mr. London the shelves and felt like reading him a little this winter (if it ever gets cold in Baltimore this winter and stays that way).

Some of this new attitude toward books (and possessions in general) comes from having a toddler who seems as interested in books as her parents are. That Sesame Street alphabet book has taped pages by still functions. Charlotte took Mommy’s recent book and disapproved of page 97 enough to tear it out — albeit cheerfully.  Our Library of America books and semi-rare first editions are where she can’t get to them, but she plays around with Hemingway (“Hebeeshay!”) and Chabon all the time.

Being a toddler, she doesn’t mind that her copy of the beloved Where the Sidewalk Ends doesn’t quite close anymore (despite being only a year old) or that her getting-worn-in copy of The Trouble with Henry isn’t simple to replace, it being out of print.

I’m finally getting around to seeing books as things to read, not things to own/display/collect.  It wasn’t always this way, however.

I have been known to keep books pristine through an entire semester, at least on the outside.  In college, my professor jokingly accused me of not having cracked my Medieval Philosophy text book, until my hallmate to whom I had lent it testified that it was completely written in, not always in pencil.

I still take very good care of my books.  I imagine a time when I’m a grandfather and my grandchildren read my paper books because no one else has any for them to curl up with.  But I don’t get upset when Charlotte sits on a cover and bends it, when I drop a trade paperback and dent the binding, when some child-born liquid soils a cover.

That’s healthy, right?

(Oh, you should read the rest of that article.)

Posted in Blogs, Essays, Opinion | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Review: All the President’s Men (1974)

Excellent haircuts!

It’s a new year, but I still had some unfinished business from 2011 — namely, finishing All the President’s Men (1974).  I got the idea to read this iconic account of investigative journalism by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward over the summer, when we rented the 1976 film version from Netflix.  During a trip to the Book Thing of Baltimore in the fall, I happily stumbled upon a free copy of the book.  My 1976 Warner Books edition is a movie tie-in and contains the fetching photo you see above of Bernstein and Woodward’s cinematic counterparts (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, respectively).

In June, it will be forty years since five men were arrested while burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.  Although Watergate has become synonymous with political scandal ever since, reading All the President’s Men will most certainly send you scurrying to Wikipedia, as it did me, to catch up on the backstory and keep track of all of the players.  In a nutshell, the break-in was part of a larger conspiracy by members of the Nixon White House to spy on the then-President’s political rivals.  Tapes released in 1974 proved that Nixon himself knew about the break-in and attempted to conceal it, a discovery that prompted his resignation that August.  You can read a detailed account of the scandal and the Post‘s coverage of it here.

Hot on the trail of the story from the start were Bernstein and Woodward, and All the President’s Men traces how the reporters uncovered the conspiracy.  As much as it is a story of political intrigue, what I enjoyed most about ATPM was the degree to which it is a story about writers and writing.  Bernstein and Woodward detail countless meetings with sources, confidential or otherwise, and the process of confirming information gleaned from those sources.  We see not only the reporters but also their editors engage in a careful writing process based on what information can be confirmed, which sources can be named, and what allegations needed to be held off for another day when more confirmation could be secured.

ATPM is fascinating primary source material, not only for students of the Watergate scandal, but also for observers of the fate of the American newspaper.  From Bernstein and Woodward’s perspective, the newsroom of a major daily in the 1970s was a fast-paced, vibrant place to be, with dozens of reporters and editors on hand to confer, argue, and rewrite.  These days, the newspapers that have survived the rise of online news outlets are smaller places.  It makes you wonder, do reporters still have the time and the opportunity to cultivate the relationships that create the important confidential sources Bernstein and Woodward depended on?  It’s hard to imagine Watergate without the complex relationship between Woodward and his source Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 to have been FBI official Mark Felt) — a relationship that played out in late-night meetings and a deeply personal system of coded messages and mutual trust.

As you watch not only Woodward and Bernstein but also their counterparts at newspapers in New York and Los Angeles chase the Watergate story, it feels like life or death every time a morning edition is published.  There could be a different story, a different set of discoveries, about Watergate in each city.  Nowadays, you can flip between each of the major network morning shows and hear more or less the same stories.  I ended ATPM wishing, not for another Watergate, but for a return to this brand of deep background, shoe leather-expending, late night-meeting, this-just-in journalism.  It must have been pretty exciting to have lived it.

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Happy 2012! DIY Books for the New Year

It’s 2012!  Happy New Year from the Baltimore Book Blog.  We hope you had a great holiday season.

We’ve returned from a bit of a holiday hiatus, and it’s a good thing because Santa brought us some interesting reading projects to see us through the winter.

Mommy and Charlotte at the playground last winter (I made both of our hats)

There were three treats with my name on them under the tree on Christmas morning that I would call DIY book projects.  Each one invites the reader to contribute content in ways that both preserve memories and entertain.

My Quotable Kid (Chronicle Books, 2009): Charlotte has been a talker for almost as long as she’s been alive.  Before she got the hang of “Ma-ma” and “Da-da,” she would babble on and on as she sounded out new vowels or (one of her favorite activities) yelled to hear herself echo in an empty room or parking garage.  At 20 months old, she says all kinds of adorable things, from demanding a “Daddy hug” to declaring “all done the milk.”  My Quotable Kid is an opportunity to record them.  I’m already a big fan of Mom’s One Line a Day, a Chronicle Books five-year journal.  The quotation journal is another treat, with space to record the date and location/context of the quote as well as the actual verbiage.  I’m looking forward to filling this up over the next year.

Reading Journal: For Book Lovers (Potter Style, 2010): We started the Baltimore Book Blog as a way of keeping track of, and sharing our thoughts on, the books we read.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t still enjoy kickin’ it old school with a reader’s journal like this one.  Reading Journal is one iteration of this kind of book, and we’ve owned others like it. Aside from the pleasing feel and design of the book, a few special features make it stand out.  The journal has plenty of space to record your thoughts on the book of the moment.  But if you’ve run out of books to read, there are several helpful lists of award-winning books from many years past in the back.  You can also fill in the reading tree to see what books or authors led you to other ones.  There’s space to write down favorite quotes.  These special features encourage us to reflect on what we’re reading but also on how that reading is related to the books we’ve already read — kind of a personal reading genealogy!

Travel Stub Diary (Chronicle Books, 2012):  We’re total sentimental saps at the Baltimore Book Blog.  We’ve been carrying around boxes of love letters, greeting cards, and notes that we exchanged over the fourteen years that we’ve known each other.  And whenever we travel somewhere new, we love to hold onto ticket stubs and other seemingly throwaway items that remind us of having been someplace new, like a java jacket with the logo of a coffeeshop in New York or a paper napkin from a restaurant in Boston.  Thanks to the Travel Stub Diary, I’ve got a place to keep them all.  The book is available now at Uncommon Goods, later on this year on Amazon.

Coming up this month: A review of Bernstein and Woodward’s All the President’s Men, whose reading was prompted after getting the movie from Netflix.

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